Groupe Franck Muller says Muller wants to ‘destroy’ it

Groupe Franck Muller, which produces Swiss luxury watch brands Franck Muller, Pierre Kunz, and European Company Watch, has accused its co-founder, watchmaker Franck Muller, of “bitter and cut-throat tactics” intended to “destroy his partners and the Group” and “damage the image” of both them and the brand.

In related stories, the company’s first public offering of stock apparently is being delayed by the dispute, and it has warned Muller against any new watchmaking activities “without prior consent of his partners.”

The Group’s accusation against Muller comes in a Jan. 8 statement by the Swiss company denying allegations that it used illegal, undocumented workers at Franck Muller Watchland S.A., where it produces watches in Genthod, a suburb of Geneva, Switzerland. Geneva’s attorney general is conducting a preliminary investigation into the claims, reportedly filed by Muller himself, two officials in the Geneva government, and by FTMH, a major trade union for Swiss French-speaking workers, say Swiss press accounts.

The Jan. 8 statement calls the accusation about undocumented workers “totally unfounded” and “unwarranted,” and expresses dismay that Geneva officials would aid “a smear campaign” against a company providing almost 500 jobs in Geneva. It also warns slanderous remarks will be dealt with in court.

Last year, Muller left the company he co-founded in 1991 with then-partner Vartan Sirmakes, the Group’s chief executive officer, following disagreements between them. An arbitration proceeding, separate from the Geneva investigation, is currently underway to settle the disputes. The two sides also have filed legal claims and civil suits against each other. The Jan. 8 statement claims Muller wants to liquidate the company, and seeks to settle the dispute “not through mediation, but … absolute confrontation.” However, citing the Group’s “developments, success, and financial strength,” it says, “Whether Mr. Muller likes it or not, the group’s permanence is assured, regardless of the presence or absence of any one individual.”

Since leaving, Franck Muller has opened an office in Geneva. On Jan. 8, watch industry veteran Jean-Claude Biver, a top Swatch Group executive who successfully revived the luxury watch brand Blancpain, took a leave of absence to “help” Muller with “various activities.” Reacting the same day, Groupe Franck Muller warned that Muller “remains bound by non-competition and confidentiality commitments” to the company and “isn’t at liberty to develop any activities in the watckmaking field without the prior consent of his partners.” The Group will “protect its rights in all circumstances and by all appropriate means,” it said.

Meanwhile, the Group’s plan to take the company public with its first-ever public offering of stock apparently has been delayed by the dispute between Muller and Sirmakes. Miguel Payró, the Group’s chief financial officer, for several months has been consolidating accounts and introducing new accounting standards in preparation for the initial public offering (IPO) of stock. However, documents for the banks and the investors must be signed by both Muller and Sirmakes. Muller allegedly hasn’t signed anything concerning the company for at least a few months.